A park that offers close access to a wide variety of native animals, excellent playgrounds, interesting walks through natural forest and is free? Blackbutt Reserve exceeded our expectations when we arranged to meet some unschooling friends at one of Newcastle’s best picnic locations.

The reserve is easily accessible from the road and offers enough parking for standard days. I can imagine the spots may fill up quickly on public holidays or weekends, but the small parking fee ($4.90/day) may prompt visitors to carpool or park elsewhere.

When we arrived, the reserve was full of uniformed schoolkids. The crowds initially deterred my girls from wanting to explore the playground, so we wandered around the perimeter of the main attractions until the classed left on their chartered buses.

Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
While a group of schoolkids dominate the playground, we play in another section of the park.

Playing at Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
Our girls start playing on the equipment once most of the kids have been herded elsewhere.

Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
This park beautifully combines natural features with artificial ones to make a greater playspace for adventurous children.

Playing at Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
After twanging a little tongue, these tall boxes emit a sonorous tone. I like the integration of musical instruments into playgrounds but find that after an initial experimentation, they're ignored by most of the children.

Playing at Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
The girls race down the slide.

Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
A small, second playground is located next to the kiosk.

Playing at Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
This must be a popular spot for birthday parties, and the girls find tiny samples from the parties scattered around the grounds. Brioni selects two sticks to use as chopsticks in retrieving a small toy from beneath the gutter's grille.

Calista with a plastic pink ring, June 2014
When the girls retrieve the toy, they discover it's a pink ring and decide to give it to Calista.

Blackbutt Reserve is maintained by rangers who look maintain a number of wildlife exhibits. Each day, koalas are brought from their enclosure to a public area for petting and photos. Although we aren’t too excited about seeing animals in enclosures, the girls hadn’t seen some of the birds in the wild before, and the proximity of the animals was quite exciting.

Echidna, Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
While exploring the grounds, we meet an echidna intent on its own path.

Echidna, Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
The last we saw of the echnidna, it was camouflaging itself with the bushes.

Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
A number of wallabies and kangaroos are kept in enclosures at the reserve.

Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
I do believe the animals are kept behind fences for their own comfort — if not, they would be constantly chased by kids eager to pet them!

Emu, Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
The emu comes over to see if we've got anything to offer it.

Emu, Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
The girls find the emu's feet fascinating!

Emu, Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
I'm more interested in capturing the colour of the emu's eye — such a brilliant orange!

Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
There's a lot of variety in the vegetation on the reserve. Several tracks lead around the ground for those who prefer a longer walk. We stuck to the shorter circuit.

Peacock, Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
A number of brightly coloured peacocks wanders freely around the grounds. The girls love finding their dropped fathers.

Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
Some of the native animals are kept in small houses. This one contains a wombat which we can see sleeping behind a big pane of glass with the help of a red light.

Bees, Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
By pulling aside a wooden cover, we can observe the bees working on their honeycomb.

Koala, Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
Several koalas sleep at the top of their artificial trees during the day — right at the height of our elevated walkway around their enclosure.

Koala, Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
Observing the koalas' interaction with the rangers presents a moral conundrum for me. I don't like the way the koalas' natural nocturnal patterns have been disturbed by afternoon feeding, but I understand that their exposure to a greater number of visitors attracts funds that leads to conservation of habitat.

Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
Calista peers through the flaps that lead into the housing of nocturnal native animals.

Goanna, Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
A lazy goanna was sleeping in its artificial cave. Usually we only spy these running up the trunk of a gum tree!

Gouldian finch, Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
Although we've seen flocks of Gouldian finches in outback Queensland, this is the first time the girls have been able to appreciate their bright colours up close.

Black cockatoo, Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
When it flew from one side of the cage to the other, Brioni was delighted to discover that the black cockatoo is hiding a spray of scarlet feathers on its tail.

Frogmouth owl, Blackbutt Reserve, Newcastle, June 2014
The tawny frogmouth owl is a very common sight in many parts of Australia, but rarely do we get to experience one this close.

I was equally delighted with discovering such a wonderful park as meeting up with some familiar and new faces. Two other unschooling mamas took the time to join us at the park, and I loved hearing about their lives and how they were consciously managing their growth and their relationships — especially as two of them had older children. Although we pursue different lifestyles, we are united in common values, and this was enough of a foundation for a fantastic afternoon of intimate sharing in a great location!

Erica and Lauren, June 2014
It's been almost a year since I last met up with Erica. Although we don't see each other very often, we stay in touch online, and it's been wonderful to watch each others' life-stories unfold in marvelous ways.

Visitors to the Newcastle area should definitely put Blackbutt Reserve on their list of great free activities. Along with Speers Point Park (which remains in our opinions as one of the best playgrounds in NSW), these two attractions mean families with children shouldn’t bypass Newcastle on their trips up the NSW coast.